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Railway Board – High on Promises and pursuit for Delivery?

By IndianMandarins- 04 Aug 2020
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Behind the iron curtains of the Rail Bhawan and a little away from scrutiny by the ‘top offices’ the Railway Establishment, which at its convenience dons the alternate roles of a Board and a Ministry, seems to flounder without a recovery in sight. 

There has been a spate of announcements and promises that attracted media attention extensively. But closer scrutiny reveals that these promises were more to hoodwink the top political leadership. Let’s have a look on some of the prominent announcements and how they fare now.

Integration of Railway Cadres Constantly warring railway cadres were ordered to be integrated into a single Indian Railway Management Service (IRMS) on the orders of the Prime Minister himself about ten months ago. But, the otherwise decisive regime has not been able to push the obstinate Railway bureaucracy to go beyond a Cabinet approval for the merger. That there are incompatibilities in the merger of civil services and engineering service entrants was well known. Yet, a Cabinet note was moved and got clearance also. Disputes and representations have, therefore, stalled the process. But, the Railway Board doesn’t seem to pay heed let alone address the issues directly. It is looking at the Group of Ministers constituted for the purpose, but hasn’t held even a single interactive meeting at its own level with officers in last ten months, who have expressed legitimate concerns.

Corporatization of Production UnitsThis exercise began nearly two years ago as a solution to Railway’s bloated workforce, giving operational freedom to the Pus and to enable them to work in a competitive world by inducting modern technology. This proposal has not even been presented to the Cabinet for a final decision. Meanwhile, the route to bring in new technology has been diverted to possible induction of modern trains by private train operators. Needless to say, such corporatization would have significantly reduced the wage bill of Railways.

Vande Bharat Express The Vande Bharat Express has been an unqualified success, albeit a rare one, of the Make-in-India call. Even after a much-publicized inauguration by the PM and his repeated calls, the Railway Board is yet to produce more trains of the genre. A thriving Indian high-speed rail industry has been stopped in its tracks. The current plans to manufacture the train to new specifications, which were completely unnecessary, do not promise new trains before the year 2024. Only the posterity will tell whether this delay was meant to scuttle in-house expertise and benefit outsiders.

Rail UniversityThe NDA government, in its first rule itself envisioned four National Rail Universities in India. But, in spite of repeated reminders by the ‘top office’, consultancies, and review meetings there is no worthwhile institution in sight. The make-shift institution operational in the campus of Railway Staff College at Vadodara is running without any specific plans on what will happen to the students graduating from it – will it add further to the army of unemployable engineers of the country or will there be gainful jobs for them. There is no faculty, laboratories or curriculum approved by the UGC or the AICTE. Reportedly, there isn’t even an adequately resourced library.

Private Train Operation It is proposed to bring-in private train operators with a view to improving service levels, attracting investments and inducting new technology. The whole exercise is based on a farce that private investment is needed in the first place. Indian Railways has enough rolling stock and locomotives to run the train-services at pre-COVID levels and a lot more. There is actually a glut of passenger coaches. Why is the private investment required in an area, where we already have a surplus? Then the call for new technology is a bigger farce - the current stock is already capable of running at speeds significantly higher than that permitted by our tracks, bridges and signals. 160 kmph operations are possible even today with Vande Bharat and LHB coaches coupled with select locomotives. On-board services like better food and comfort are not matters of new technology, but of better execution of what IR already has. The clamor for modern technology is misplaced at best and mischievous at worst.

These promises were conceptualized to exhibit a sign of activity over a year or more. Most of it was aimed at self-preservation and possible extensions by senior bureaucracy. The trick has been to keep making new promises while carefully putting the old ones on the back burner. The decline in the general health of the Railways is palpable as can be discovered by anyone, who speaks to officers of all ranks in the field – there is a lot to do on the fronts of financial management, efficient management of expenditure on “capacity expansion” works and a re-think required over perpetuating production. Given the general hopelessness, even sincere officers have taken recourse to take credit for running shramik and other specials at less than ten percent of Railway’s operational capacity, manufacture of masks and PPEs and COVID coaches, a far cry from the general efficiency of rail operations.

Indian Railways is the common man’s transport. Yet, the Railway Board, in the backdrop of the COVID crisis, has steadfastly refused to run regular trains. Many trains originate and end in the same state and there should be no resistance to begin these trains immediately since such transport directly impacts local businesses and professions.

It is time the ‘top offices’ and ‘premiere institutions’ began to pose some tough questions to the Railway Board on the resumption of train services, prioritization of contracts and projects, reduction of the wage bill and creating a lean-mean travel company. Otherwise, the losses may be permanent and impossible to recover from.

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